Clergy sex abuse survivors to testify in Archdiocese of Baltimore bankruptcy

Baltimore Sun [Baltimore MD]

April 8, 2024

By Alex Mann

Six survivors of child sexual abuse committed by Catholic clergy in Maryland are set to testify Monday about their torment in front of Archbishop William Lori during a hearing in the Archdiocese of Baltimore’s bankruptcy case.

The unusual, though not unprecedented, hearing is one of at least two scheduled in the archdiocese’s bankruptcy case with a goal of shedding light on the human toll of the systemic sexual abuse that underlies the proceedings.

Baltimore’s diocese, America’s oldest, declared bankruptcy Sept. 29. It was a strategic decision designed to shield the church’s assets and limit liability days before Maryland’s landmark Child Victims Act took effect. The law lifted time limits for survivors of child sex abuse to sue perpetrators and the institutions that enabled their suffering.

Filing for bankruptcy also meant that lawsuits laying out allegations in state court might never be aired publicly. Instead, those complaints must be filed as claims in U.S. Bankruptcy Court, where they will vetted by lawyers, evaluated by experts and assigned a dollar value.

Last month, attorneys for the committee of seven survivors tasked with representing the interests of all victims in the bankruptcy case raised the prospect of allowing survivors to give statements in court. They said such testimony would add humanity to the technical and otherwise money-oriented proceedings — and bolster survivors’ trust in the process.

That argument won the blessing of the church’s lawyers, who said in court papers that Lori would attend such hearings.

U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Michelle M. Harner, who previously expressed a desire to increase survivor participation in the proceedings, set aside two hours for survivor testimony Monday and May 20.

Moving though it may be, the testimony won’t be part of the official court record or considered as evidence in any way. Some survivors are relishing the opportunity nonetheless.

Teresa Lancaster, an attorney who survived abuse in the Catholic Church in Baltimore as a child and advocates for other victims, described the forthcoming testimony as critically important in a statement ahead of the hearing.

“We were going to have an opportunity to talk to jurors in civil court, to tell them what happened to us as children, to help people understand our pain. The church stole that opportunity from us when they filed for bankruptcy,” Lancaster said. “Survivors need some sense of justice. Survivors need validation. By allowing survivors to testify, the Judge has given us validation.”

Friday marked a year since the Maryland attorney general released an expansive report on child sex abuse in the archdiocese. The result of a four-year investigation, the report’s nearly 500 pages documented the harm done to more than 600 children and young adults by 156 clergy and other church officials dating to the 1940s.

Many credited the attorney general’s report for providing lawmakers with the momentum needed to pass the Child Victims Act last spring, with survivors’ advocates finally overcoming lobbying by the Catholic Church.

A deluge of lawsuits flooded Maryland court dockets when the law took effect Oct. 1, with complaints targeting the likes of churches, schools and correctional facilities for abuse allegedly committed by clergy, teachers and guards.

The law also faced an almost immediate court challenge, with the Archdiocese of Washington and other defendants arguing it was unconstitutional. Circuit Court judges in three counties have ruled on the law’s constitutionality — two said it was constitutional, one said it was not — and appeals from those cases are moving through the courts.

A federal judge faced with a lawsuit brought under the child victims law also intends to send a question about the act’s constitutionality to the Supreme Court of Maryland, which is the expected destination for appeals from state court.

“Regardless of the outcome, there can be no question that the Child Victims Act has already had a very meaningful impact — an impact that cannot be undone,” said Frank Schindler, another abuse survivor, in a statement. “Institutionalized abuse has been uncovered. Once exposed, it cannot be hidden again.”

That’s distinct from the bankruptcy case, though.

In her statement, Lancaster said, no amount of testimony or compensation, while meaningful, “can get our lives back completely.”

“There is not one survivor who wouldn’t trade any of this for not having their childhood innocence unadulterated,” she said.